Gucci lights up runway at start of Milan fashion week

Firebirds lit up the runway at the Gucci show kicking off Milan fashion week Wednesday, as the industry awaits a weekend general election that could determine the future of "Made in Italy".

As Italy's top luxury labels show off their autumn-winter 2013 collections to global fashionistas, there was no sense of the crisis which has hit the Italian fashion industry hard.

Gucci's runway was lit up by exotic creatures with evening wear that featured a luxurious play of feathers and ferns on netting that evoked firebirds.

The atmosphere, designer Frida Giannini said, was noir and fetish -- and leather, python and metallic sheens dominated the collection, with tightly fitting outfits paired with fishnet tights with a back seam and towering heels.

"The Gucci woman... is steely yet sexy, defining her discipline with femme fatale vices," said Giannini, describing a collection which hinged on sculptured small jackets, bustiers and pencil skirts, with leather lock cuffs.

Blacks and greys were brought alive by burnt oranges, wine purples and cerulean patterns set against midnight-blue backgrounds.

A forest-green suit jacket pulled in sharply at the waist and worn over a metallic roll-neck stood out, as did the knee-high python leather boots.

The noir theme continued at Frankie Morello, where designers Pierfrancesco Gigliotti and Maurizio Modica said they were bringing "an army of super-feminine, mysterious femmes fatales" to their runway.

It was an army which had no fear of the freezing temperatures in Milan: mini hot pants were a recurrent favourite, decorated with blood-red drops on a black background that looked like they'd been ruthlessly slashed into the fabric.

Among the starring items were a jacket with sculptured shoulders reminiscent of the Sydney Opera house roof and a black skirt with a red cellophane hem.

Those unwilling to go practically bare on a winter evening could swap the mini hot pants for full length dresses embellished with shards of mirror.

Alberta Ferretti's show was dedicated to a softer sort of femininity, with an array of ivory, black and white floor-length dresses, or ruffled above-the-knee skirts, worn with long-sleeved shirts and gem-studded cross earrings.

The show, played out to the melody of a single, mournful piano, featured rich velvets and simply-cut dresses that harked back to a more austere age.

Prada and Canadian twins Dan and Dean for DSquared2 take to the catwalks Thursday.

Moschino, Etro and the glamorous Versace show on Friday, while Saturday it is the turn of Bottega Veneta, Roberto Cavalli and Jil Sander, with her second collection since rejoining the label as creative director last year.

Sunday sees big hitters Emporio Armani and Dolce & Gabbana unveil shows, as well as Missoni, which is celebrating its 60th anniversary this year, and fashion week closes its doors with John Richmond and Giorgio Armani on Monday.

Despite the glitz of fashion week, industry players are feeling the pain of Italy's longest recession in 20 years and holding their breath for elections this weekend that could prove crucial for the future of the eurozone.

The industry's turnover was an estimated 60 billion euros ($80 billion) in 2012 according to the Chamber of Fashion, down 5.0 percent from 2011.

"We're back to the 2010 level, but bearing in mind the extent of the crisis, that's not so bad. It means the system held up," said Mario Boselli, head of the Italian chamber of fashion.

"We think the first half of 2013 will not be particularly brilliant, but we are confident of a recovery from autumn on," he said.

Fashion mixed with politics at Milan's cathedral Tuesday, where the populist Five Star Movement -- currently third in the election race -- drew 40,000 people to a rally also attended by Russian models due on catwalks this week.

Also overshadowing fashion week this year is the run-up to the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI, who will celebrate his last Sunday prayers in St Peter's Square this weekend.